Being a Member of Parliament is an enormous honour and privilege. Nobody should consider the role in an off-hand or flippant manner, least of all the 650 individuals, including me, who are very fortunate to make up the House of Commons in Parliament.
Representing a constituency in Parliament should take up most, if not all of a person’s time and attention. The pay of an MP certainly reflects the fact that it is, and should be, a full-time job.
That is why the announcement last Friday that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is to become Editor of the Evening Standard, the paper in London, has aroused such concern and criticism.
The appointment comes hot on the heels of the disclosure that Mr Osborne is to provide advice, taking about four days a month, to the City firm BlackRock and to be paid £650,000 a year for doing so. In addition, he has taken an academic role which pays about £120,000. He also acts as a speaker on the after-dinner circuit, for which he is said to be paid a total of £750,000 a year. His salary at the Evening Standard has not been disclosed, but editors of major newspapers tend to be paid in the region of about £150-200,000 a year.
It is clear then that Mr Osborne will not be fretting about having to pay the next gas bill. The figures provided are a world away from normal people’s expectations and salary levels. Some will no doubt say that this is just the latest example of MPs having their snouts in the trough. People will often just say “greedy MPs” and that is what they will think.
But this latest news is very significant. As I said, I consider the position of Member of Parliament to be a full-time job. Some people in Parliament will have outside interests and possibly be on boards of companies. I’m certainly not sure where they find the time to be an MP and then do this additional work as well, but being on the board of a company, although time consuming and intensive, is often not a full-time job. However, as well as an MP’s role being a full-time job, I suspect that being an editor of a major newspaper in London is a full-time job as well. I have never worked successfully in journalism, as these weekly Hartlepool Mail columns testify, but I understand that editors are constantly on call, thinking about decisions regarding the content of the paper and, as soon as that evening’s edition is “put to bed”, thinking of the next day’s edition. The notion that Mr Osborne can tootle up the Evening Standard’s office in the morning, decide what will be on the front page, and then wander over to the House of Commons for the afternoon, simply defies belief. On top of that, I would also imagine that BlackRock will want to exert significant pressure to get value out of the £650,000 a year they are paying him. These are three full-time and very onerous jobs, and Mr Osborne believes he can do all three. That is not sustainable.
Then there is the very clear conflicts of interest. A London-based newspaper clearly often reports on the City of London and the financial services industry. Does any reader seriously think that Mr Osborne will want to criticise BlackRock or report in an impartial way when he being paid nearly three-quarters of a million pounds from them? The obvious contradictions between being an MP for a Cheshire town and editor of a London-based paper cannot be resolved.
In the 1960s, Roy Jenkins was offered, while he was a Labour MP, the editorship of The Economist. He turned it down because he wanted to stay on in Parliament. That was the right approach to take. Mr Osborne cannot do all these jobs successfully and without conflict. It’s simply unsustainable. Being an MP is a tremendous privilege but if he wants to go and do another job that is fine. It just means he should step down from being an MP.